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Media Backtalk
Post Column: Media Notes
Recent Columns by Howard Kurtz
Media Backtalk
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Media Backtalk
With Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer

Tuesday, April 22, 2003; Noon ET

Consumers used to get their news from newspapers, magazines and evening broadcasts from the three television networks. Now, with the Internet, cable TV and 24-hour news networks, the news cycle is faster and more constant, with every minute carrying a new deadline. But clearly more news and more news outlets are not necessarily better. And just because the press has the ability to cover a story doesn't always mean they should -- or that they'll do it well.

Howard Kurtz has been The Washington Post's media reporter since 1990. He is also the host of CNN's "Reliable Sources" and the author of "Media Circus," "Hot Air," "Spin Cycle" and "The Fortune Tellers: Inside Wall Street's Game of Money, Media and Manipulation." Kurtz talks about the press and the stories of the day in "Media Backtalk."

The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


Washington, D.C.: Howie, seeing President Bush in Texas decorating wounded troops brought to mind the president's own military record, particularly the year and a half when he didn't even show up for his Texas Air National Guard duties. I know papers like the Post and Boston Globe covered the story, but I'm shocked that being AWOL during wartime hasn't hurt Bush's credibility with the military or public. Do you think a Democratic candidate, particularly John Kerry, could exploit this in 2004, or does Bush get a free ride on this?

Howard Kurtz: My view of this is the same as about Clinton's lack of service: it was aired during the campaign and the American people elected both men anyway. Bush was never charged with being "AWOL," although documenting his service during that time proved very difficult. But my guess is most of the country, in the wake of Afghanistan and Iraq, sees him as a strong commander-in-chief and is willing to overlook the past.


Somewhere, USA: Now that the exciting part of the conflict in Iraq is done (search for weapons of mass destruction just isn't all that visual), what would the media focus on if it weren't for the Scott/Laci Peterson case? Interesting how the media latches onto one particular story, much like they did with the case of Gary Condit (also from Modesto) and Chandra Levy (interest in that gradually petered out). Media is quickly losing interest in Iraq. Note the lack of dramatic music and graphics when Iraq news segments begin.

Howard Kurtz: I've been harping on this same point. We all said Iraq was really important, that it was a test of whether democracy could flourish in the Middle East, etc. Now that the shooting has stopped, you can see the media's attention drifting. Not so much on the broadcast networks, which led with Iraq last night, or the newspapers, which are still treating Iraq as a front-page story, but on cable. The cable nets still have this insatiable appetite for drama. I wonder whether there were other missing or murdered women during the war who just didn't make it on air because the cable networks were preoccupied with Iraq.


Burke, Va.: So is finding Chemical and Biological weapons now passe? This should be a huge story, because it's the official reason the USA went to war. Even if people in the U.S. don't care it's a huge story around the rest of the word and is causing Blair a lot of problems in Britain.

Howard Kurtz: I couldn't agree more. If no WMDs are found, it will undercut the original rationale for invading Iraq and damage the American cause around the world. We can't just now say, oops, never mind, Saddam's a bad guy and so it doesn't really matter whether we find these weapons or not.


Long Beach, Calif.: Robert Scheer has editorialized in the LA TIMES today that if Bush has intentionally misrepresented the actual threat to the USA posed by WMD in Iraq, that he should be impeached for lying. Is this fair? Is willful misrepresentation that important of an issue?

Howard Kurtz: If Bush "intentionally" misrepresented the situation -- that is, if he lied to the country -- then I could understand an argument for impeachment, though I doubt there'd be much political stomach for it. But there's no evidence that Bush (and Rumsfeld, Powell etc.) didn't believe what they were telling the country about WMD. They may turn out to be wrong, or it may just be that this stuff is awfully hard to find or, as a NYT story say, was destroyed shortly before the war began.


Chicago, Ill.: Howard,

I noticed you had CNN's Eason Jordan on your Reliable Sources show over the weekend, and that he still maintains CNN didn't soften its coverage of Saddam's regime. I'm curious why you didn't ask him about the slanted stories after Saddam's bogus "election". CNN reporters didn't question the election's veracity and said that 99.99 percent of Iraqis voted this way to send a signal to President Bush. If this wasn't soft coverage, what was it?

Howard Kurtz: I don't agree. Neither CNN nor anyone else presented that 99.9 percent vote as a serious election, or as anything other than the outcome of a dictatorship where expressing dissent could be fatal. I thought it was better to use the time to press Jordan on his reasons for withholding the Iraqi brutality stories that he says he held back to avoid endangering people's lives.


Fairfax, Va.: Did the Post deliberately ignore Earth Day, or was is unintentional? Given the lack of interest in the subject at the paper, and their pro-business, pro-developer policies it does not surprise me.

Howard Kurtz: I beg to differ with your assessment. Our environmental coverage is actually quite good. As for Earth Day, I'm puzzled because I don't see much on it in lots of the papers I look at it. That may be because today's Earth Day events will be covered in tomorrow's editions; it may be because some events are scheduled for this weekend; it may be because there are no big demonstrations or other eye-catching developments planned.


Bristow, Va.: Any thoughts on why ABC would promote Stephanopoulos as its "moderator" of Democrats? If Fox had hosted a GOP debate in 2000 hosted by a Hannity or a John Kasich, wouldn't most people think the "moderator" was hoping to help find the best candidate for their party instead of appearing objective?

Howard Kurtz: Whatever one thinks of George's background as a Clintonite -- and I've taken issue several times with his rapid transition from White House spinmeister to journalist -- he is now the anchor of "This Week" and ABC's top political analyst. Therefore he's a logical choice for the network to moderate this debate. I'm still slightly uncomfortable with him interviewing Dick Gephardt, a man he's worked for in the past, But Stephanopoulos makes the point that that was more than a decade ago. Both Tim Russert and Tony Snow, as you may know, have backgrounds in partisan politics.


Washington, D.C. -- 20002: The comments by Sen. Santorum comparing homosexuality to incest and adultery -- do you think this story has enough substance to damage either the senator or the Republican Party?

Howard Kurtz: I'm surprised they're not getting more attention. They seem to suggest not only that the senator equates gay people with those who practice incest but believes that consensual relations between willing adult partners of the same sex should not be legal. I don't think that's the image the Republican Party wants to project.


Washington, D.C.: According to CNN this morning, there have been five shark attacks in Florida in the past week alone. Do you think the media is underplaying this wave of shark attacks because they're preoccupied with Iraq even though the war is over and shark season is upon us?

Howard Kurtz: I think the number of shark attacks varies little from year to year and that the media shouldn't go into Jaws mode every time beach season rolls around.


Forget about "war for oil": Dana Milbank's White House column mentions a private briefing for 141 evangelical Christian leaders to discuss Iraq. As quoted in the column, many of these leaders seem to view Islam as an enemy of Christianity.

Now, I don't believe Bush consciously invaded Iraq to convert the country's Muslims. But I believe there are legitimate questions about how Bush's policies have been influenced by his evangelical beliefs. One place to start is with his choice for Iraq's interim leader. Bush's fellow believers tend to be fanatical in their support of Israel, with some of them openly longing to see the events in Revelations come about.

Howard Kurtz: I'd quarrel on two points: Bush is not going to choose Iraq's interim leader; at least that's what the administration says, and there'd be a terrible backlash if he did. Second, every president is influenced by his religious beliefs. That was certainly true of Jimmy Carter, and of Bill Clinton, and other presidents who didn't much talk about their faith in public.


A second opinion: Howard Kurtz: the idea that Bush may have "misrepresented" or lied to the nation and many of soldiers and journalists died for the profits and power of a few old cronies -- is a growing concern. Impeachment is a word that comes up quite often lately even among the more moderate voices. How long does it take to recognize that 'misrepresentation' is another word for 'lie' when deception is the word and the word is with deception etc?

Howard Kurtz: I await a list of those in Congress who favor impeaching Bush over Iraq.


Bethesda, Md.: You're right on today about short media attention spans. And that soon Iraq coverage will shift only to "what Gulf War Redux showed us about Bush, Rummy, the military, the Democrats and the media."

Today's Post page 1 has an example of another media distraction: 'State-Defense Policy Rivalry Intensifying.'

I'm no fan of Donald Rumsfeld, but I think he's right when he says that the media (especially the Post) has a perverse fascination with 'internal conflict' stories. I would 'hope' that our government officials have active dialogues and conflicts as they wrestle with big issues.

Howard Kurtz: All journalists have a fascination with internal conflict stories -- I hadn't particularly thought of it as "perverse" until now -- and yes, this can often lead to a focus on inside baseball that readers don't much care about. But in this case, the battles between State and Defense are quite important in terms of the future of Iraq. So I think it's worth exploring.


Alexandria, Va.: Is cable news over saturated right now? As you point out, the public's judgement of the media goes sky high when it is doing hard news (post 9/11, Iraq War, etc.). But there are 24 hours in a day on Cable and the Networks have all those Newsmagazines that need ratings. So the sensationalism gets the ratings but loses respect.

Do you see any way out of this conundrum besides cutting back on the amount of news outlets?

Howard Kurtz: Well, I'm certainly not in favor of THAT!
The fact is, people are smart. They turn to the media in record numbers (cable ratings up 300 percent during the war) when there is a story they care about, and tune out at other times. Of course, in cable you only need to attract a relatively small number of additional viewers interested in a Laci Peterson or Chandra Levy story and your percentage increase can skyrocket. I just think it would be a particular shame right now because all three cable channels did a solid job on the war.


Washington, D.C.: Senator Santorum, Gays, and Republicans -- Apparently the Republican Big Tent is swell on election day, but if any of those folks want to go home later and snuggle their loved one of the same sex in their own little private tent, that's not permissible. Sad commentary. It's enough to make this recent Republican convert rethink my conversion.

Howard Kurtz: Of course, Santorum is just one senator and not speaking for the party on this subject.


Blackout-ville: Howard:

Interesting piece in today's WP re: the almost complete press blackout being practiced by the Bush administration. Seems like the press cannot even get an answer to "What's the president's favorite color" these days.

My question: Does the "right" feel that this blackout is just another fabrication by the "liberal" media -- or are conservative publications also frustrated by this almost complete lack of communication from the White House?

Howard Kurtz: I know some conservative journalists who have been frustrated in the past by the administration's stinginess with the facts. But by and large, conservative publications cut Bush lots of slack on such subjects, just as liberal publications tended not to pound on Clinton on such matters.
By the way, Ari Flesicher just blew off a question about Rick Santorum's comment on gays by saying he hasn't read the interview or talked to Bush about it. Not exactly the way they handled the Trent Lott episode.


Re: shark attacks: Howard, do you support the notion that some media outlets support a culture of fear to boost ratings? In other words, do they purposely perpetuate "scary" stories for the belief that a man in fear desires to be informed (and will therefore watch more of the news)?

Howard Kurtz: I wouldn't say they perpetuate fear, but I'd say they are more than willing to jump on tabloid stories or sensational stories in an effort to get people to watch. This morning, for example, CNN, MSNBC and Fox all went wild over the discovery of some powder at a postal facility in Tacoma, Wash. Lots of experts blathering about botulism and so on. You could almost hear the air go out of their tires when a postal spokeswoman said four of the five tests performed on the powder had come back negative.


Washington, D.C.: Hey Howard. Love your column and the chats. You must be the hardest working person at the Post.

I have sort of a technical question. Earlier this morning I saw a breaking news story on Reuters.com about a post office in Takoma being evacuated for fears of a biological toxin being found in the mail. Even though this is potentially a major local story, no peep about it on washingtonpost.com (as of 11:50 a.m.). So my question is: does the Post rely on wire services even for local breaking stories, or does it have its own bloodhounds which, this time around, failed to pick up the scent?

Howard Kurtz: I honestly don't know whether Post.com was slow off the mark or not, but in this case it might not have been a bad idea to wait (as the cable networks didn't) for some kind of confirmation. At the moment the powder business looks like a non-story.


New York, N.Y.: It was touched on when the decision was initially made, but why, oh why, did the Dems choose Boston over NY for their convention, leaving NY for the Republicans? Especially now that the reports are out that Bush's people want to "capitalize" on the 3rd anniversary of 9/11 by having the convention as close to the date as possible, the Dems are even more in the hole.

Howard Kurtz: I don't know how much impact that will have on the election. The Dems did, after all, hold conventions in NY in '76, '80 and '92. The fact that NY is a safe Democratic state might have been a factor (but then, so is Massachusetts). So might be the fact that NY has a Republican mayor and Republican governor. Or maybe they just decided on the basis of who has the best restaurants.


Orange County, Calif.: Howard, I'm curious about the competition between major networks to be "first on the air". A perfect example was this morning's story about the white powder in a Washington post office. Fox and MSNBC had their "alerts" on the air, but CNN seemed oblivious to the breaking news. Do these networks watch one another? Is there a real pressure to get a story on the air first, at any cost?

Howard Kurtz: They all have monitors in the control room where they watch what the competition is doing. I don't know how much behind CNN was, but once they went to the powder story they stayed with it until it was all but knocked down by a spokeswoman.


20906: Now that the war is over and we need our news fixes, how will the media cover Bush's tax cut, er, jobs creation program. Really, do you think the public is going to buy this hogwash? Do the WH staffers like Card and Fleisher actually think we've forgotten the supply side Reaganomics of the 80's? They must think we're really stupid to start calling their billion dollar giveaway to their buddies a jobs bill. Ugh.

Howard Kurtz: Right now the focus is on the moderate GOP senators who have for the moment limited the size of the package to $350 billion instead of the original $726 billion. As to the larger issue, I don't sense that the public is wild for another tax cut, especially in the face of a ballooning deficit, but people don't usually march on Washington demanding that their taxes NOT be cut.


The Fliesher blow-off of Santorum issue: He could do that because there is no political price to be paid for insulting people who happen to be gay. That's just a fact.

Howard Kurtz: Not sure I agree with that. There are plenty of gay voters out there, and people whose friends and relatives are gay. I don't think the GOP wants to write off all those votes.


New York, N.Y.: Is the WH media blackout of the same mentality of "if we ignore it, it'll go away"? It sure seems that way, because if the WH doesn't report on it, then it's not news, and the American people won't know, nor will they care.

Howard Kurtz: Well, it's not quite a "blackout." And every administration decides what questions it's going to answer and what questions it's going to finesse, fudge or refuse to answer. There was an uproar and a lawsuit, to take one example, over the secrecy surrounding Hillary Clinton's health care task force.


Dupont, Washington, D.C.: Why are our forays into Afghanistan and Iraq widely called "successes"? While they may be military successes -- armed troops go in, government falls, end of story -- both countries have been in a god-awful mess since the U.S. got involved. I often hear that now is better than it was under the Taliban or Saddam Hussein, but is that really success? I mean, those guys didn't really raise the bar too darn high.

Howard Kurtz: I think it's a bit early to judge on Iraq. Let's wait till things settle down. As for Afghanistan, a poor and war-ravaged country, I think it is clearly better off, for all its continuing problems, than when it was ruled by Osama-harboring zealots who wouldn't let girls go to school or allow music to be played.


Alexandria, Va.: Dem's Convention:

Could it be that Teddy Kennedy has more clout in the party than Hillary does?

Howard Kurtz: Mayors and governors have more to say about convention selection than individual senators.


Washington, D.C.: In your Wednesday column you wrote about Clinton speaking on U.S. policy: "Frankly, in light of the stunning military victory in Iraq, his comments sound a bit churlish even though he makes some valid points. Shouldn't the former commander-in-chief be congratulating America's soldiers?" Congratulating them on what? How many people they killed. How their actions served as a recruiting poster for Al Qaeda and will probably hasten a terrorist attack here at home. How adept they were at protecting the Iraqi oil ministry while they let historical treasures be looted and plundered. The former president -- the strongest, most articulate voice we have standing up to the disastrous policies of the Bush administration -- has much more important things to do than patting our soldiers on the back for invading a country without provocation.

Howard Kurtz: You clearly have very strong views against the war. Most Americans think it was a success. And I agree that Clinton can be a very articulate critic, but in this instance it seemed to me his timing was off.


New York, N.Y.: Do you think Dick Cheney will admonish Santorum, since Cheney's daughter is gay?

Howard Kurtz: Not in public.


Washington, D.C.: How does the first camera crew on the scene generally get word of the news in a story like this morning's in Tacoma? Who on site calls usually calls the media in these cases. I noticed Kelly Arena on CNN saying "powder scares" happen about a dozen times a month, so how did this morning's incident become newsworthy while so many and others fail to make onto television?

Howard Kurtz: Because cable likes to pump up potential disasters before it's clear that they are disasters. The first responders are usually local TV crews who may get a tip or see the story on the local wires, and the national networks often pick up the video feed from their local affiliates in places like Tacoma.


Followup Re: New York and Conventions: I'm curious as to whether you have seen any coverage of the current (and soon to be truly severe) NYC financial crisis in the context of: 100k jobs gone, little or no federal aid despite the promises, a GOP president, governor, and mayor ... something tells me the GOP may get less of a red carpet treatment than they may be looking forward to.

Howard Kurtz: The Post, among others, has written how GOP governors across the country are having to grapple with budget cuts and possible tax increases in the face of severe financial difficulties, and has noted the lack of federal aid as well. Of course, some Democrats, like California's Gray Davis, are in the same boat.


Lincoln Park, D.C.:
How many U.S. news organizations maintain permanent staff in Afghanistan? How many do you think there will be in Iraq a year from now?

Howard Kurtz: There are a relative handful of correspondents in Afghanistan now, most of them for newspapers, including the NYT and WP. I certainly don't expect that number to grow.


Rockville, Md.: What is the deal with Keith Olberman? He is the best thing to hit MSNBC in a long time. I think his honesty is probably what got him in trouble the last time. I guess Monica Lewinsky's show isn't on an NBC affiliate or he's quit again.

Howard Kurtz: I've always liked Olbermann's work, though he does have a history of popping off and changing jobs. But what's wrong with that? We need more people popping off about media silliness.


Baltimore, Md.: As a Republican, I find CNN using a Democratic Presidential candidate, Wesley Clark, as their lead military analyst to be just one more piece of evidence that CNN has a liberal bias. My question though is what do the other Democratic primary candidates think of CNN essentially acting as a campaign manager for Clark?

Howard Kurtz: Well, he's not a Democratic presidential candidate. It's not even clear he's going to run. I thought it was worse for CNN to use Pat Buchanan as a seat-warmer between presidential campaigns since he not only had run, but it was clear he would run again.


Columbia, Md.: One thing I have noticed about the coverage of the Bush tax cut debate is that many reporters, especially on CNN, add the adjectives "massive," "very large" or "big" when they refer to Bush's tax cut without attributing this description to anyone. As someone who believes the tax cut is actually too "small" to do anything, I feel as if these reporters are adding a subtle bias in their reporting. If they mention that "Democrats claim it is large" that is one thing. But just saying it is large as though it is a undebatable fact seems to reflect a bias in their reporting. Any thoughts?

Howard Kurtz: Good point. But even the Republicans tout it as a large tax cut (though it may not be large enough for you), especially coming on top of the 2001 cut. So I haven't heard any complaining about that particular description.


Columbia, Md.: As a subscriber to The Washington Post, one of the things I look forward to in the Sunday Outlook section is the Ombudsman column by Michael Getler. While I don't always agree with his assessments, I find The Washington Post publishing a critique of their own newspaper's coverage a good and refreshing part of the overall newspaper.

Do the TV and Cable news networks have similar type critiques of their coverage? I have searched through every news networks' websites (CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, CBS and ABC) and haven't found anything close to what The Washington Post provides. Are they afraid to publish a critique of their coverage? I think this type of self-analysis by the news networks would be interesting.

Howard Kurtz: Television networks don't have ombudsmen. Fox and CNN do have weekly media shows. I host the one on CNN, and on Sunday we pressed its top news executive, Eason Jordan, about the stories of Iraqi brutality that CNN held back during the years that Saddam was in power.
Thanks for the chat, folks.

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